How many cords of firewood would bees need to survive the winter? This sounds like a dumb question because it is a dumb question. I’m going to ask it anyway because I’m curious.
Kevin Inglin recently discussed the British thermal units (BTUs) available in honey on his podcast, and it got me thinking about the a colony’s winter honey burn in comparison to my own winter firewood usage. Kevin mentioned 4,400 BTUs per pound of honey—I couldn’t find a source for that number, so I had to use a different one. According to the USDA, honey has 304 calories per 100 grams. There are 454 grams in a pound, so this equates to 1,380 calories per pound of honey. Converting calories to BTUs reveals there are 5476 BTUs of stored energy in each pound of honey.
Meanwhile, the white oak I predominantly burn in my woodstove has an available heat value of about 6,930 BTUs per pound, according the figures on this University of Illinois Extension table.
Honey bees might go through about 40-50 pounds of honey in a winter; the honey provides nutrition to individual bees, for sure, but it’s also the fuel for generating heat to keep the cluster from freezing in cold weather. The exact amount of honey needed to overwinter is arguable and highly variable, but most beekeepers in northern climates try to have at least 40-50 pounds of honey on each hive going into the winter. So let’s use 45 pounds as a colony’s winter honey consumption. There are 246,420 BTUs in those 45 pounds of honey—about the same stored energy as 36 pounds of my firewood. (For context, the picture above shows 36 pounds of firewood.) At 4,200 pounds of seasoned white oak per cord, the bees are surviving on 0.8% of a cord each winter. So it would take 117 colonies to burn through the equivalent of a single cord of firewood. Sounds pretty efficient considering I go through a few cords each winter myself.
But which of us is really making the best use of our heating energy? Well, if an overwintering honey bee colony weights 10 pounds and burns the equivalent of 36 pounds of white oak, it’s using 3.6 pounds of cordwood per pound of colony. Meanwhile, my combined household weight is around 280 pounds, and we’re burning through 12,600 pounds of white oak, thereby using 45 pounds of cordwood per pound of family members. So the bees are 1250% more efficient with their heating than I am, and that’s not even taking into account that my body is generating its heat from food, independent of the firewood I use to warm my home.
So why does this matter? It doesn’t really. But it’s still fun knowing.